Learn how Southampton has cut air pollution by supporting greener taxis, buses and deliveries. Reducing air pollution is part of the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils, under Action 22: Put in place Clean Air Zones, with charges if needed.

23 May 2022

How does Action 22 tackle the climate crisis?

Restricting the most polluting vehicles is essential to meeting climate targets and World Health Organization air pollution standards. Poor air quality is the biggest environmental threat to public health in the UK.

Southampton’s Local NO2 Plan has used a range of measures to lower emissions and boost health – without charging drivers to use the city’s roads. The city has above-average rates of preventable respiratory and cardiovascular early death.

Southampton City Council were one of the first five local authorities required by the government to assess the need for a charging Clean Air Zone to achieve compliance with Air Quality Limits in the shortest possible time. While it was found that a charging CAZ was not necessary, SCC committed to implementing a series of non-charging measures to help ensure compliance could be maintained.

The Local NO2 Plan aims to achieve largely what a charging CAZ aims to, without some of the unintended consequences charging may have.

Since 2015, over 60 local authorities in areas of non-compliance have collaborated with central government to agree on plans to deliver compliance.

Feedback from stakeholders led the council to launch its Local NO2 Plan, which aims to reduce emissions – but does not feature charges. The Local NO2 Plan includes:

  • Clean Bus Retrofit Scheme, retrofitting 145 of the city’s licensed buses with emission reduction technology, bringing them in line with the highest/ best diesel emission standards and effectively achieving a CAZ compliant bus fleet
  • ensuring city buses and newly licensed taxis meet the cleanest standard of diesel
  • creating a low emission taxi incentive scheme, offering drivers up to £3,000 towards switching their vehicle to an electric or low emission model, while also installing two taxi-only rapid charging points
  • enhancing the use of a sustainable distribution centre that lowers the number of heavy goods vehicles entering the city centre, by combining loads from partially empty lorries in fewer but fuller vehicles
  • working with local businesses to develop delivery and service plans that reduce emissions through greener last-mile delivery alternatives, such as electric vans and electric cargo bikes

The council submitted a business case to the government in January 2019, and the plan was approved for implementation in February 2019. Since then, SCC has delivered the Plan as required by the government. The Plan is due to conclude at the end of this financial year.

What impact has the project had?

Impact on carbon emissions

While the Local NO2 Plan is principally a measure to tackle poor air quality, there are clear benefits to the decarbonization agenda. This project is cutting carbon, tackling Southampton’s poor air quality and improving local people’s health. All while avoiding the direct fees for drivers brought by many clean air zones.

Air pollution impacts

Electric or low emission vehicles now make up half of the city’s taxi and private fleet – until recently, the fleet was almost entirely made up of vehicles meeting the more polluting Euro 3 or Euro 4 standard. This is saving an estimated 1.7 tonnes of carbon every year.

Average emissions for taxis and private hire vehicles in the local authority’s fleet has decreased from 0.144g/km to 0.092g/km between 2019 and 2021.

Annual average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide have declined by approximately 12% between 2012 and 2019 in key areas. Much of this is driven by national improvements, but also the work Southampton City Council is carrying out to fast-track improvements. Further decreases were monitored in 2020, however, this is attributable to the pandemic.

Community engagement

A wider impact of this project has been the creation of “Our Greener City", a wider council-driven programme tackling sustainability themes including climate change, ecology and waste. Consultation with local people revealed support for the impact the NO2 plan was having, but also highlighted that local residents wanted the council to be bolder in creating a healthier, greener city.

The Council launched a highly successful public consultation on the proposal to implement a charging Clean Air Zone with over 9,000 responses.

What made this work?

Political commitment

Prior to the launch of the NO2 plan, Southampton City Council had already reported on the business case for improving air quality and achieving EU nitrogen dioxide compliance in the shortest possible time. On top of this, the local authority has developed a clean air strategy for 2019 to 2025, making it clear that air quality is a significant priority and demonstrating the political will required to see these measures through.

Public backing

In 2018, a public consultation was held with local people on Southampton air pollution. The majority of respondents (75%) said that air quality was a fairly or very big problem. Stakeholders suggested support for active travel, increases in lower-emission vehicles and promoting and improving public transport as popular measures to tackle this issue. This gave the council a mandate to press on with the Local NO2 Plan – to encourage low emission vehicles - along with other air quality measures. As part of its Green City Plan, the council is also aiming to deliver a zero-emission public transport system across the city by 2030 and increase the number of journeys by bike.

What resources were needed?

Southampton City Council applied for funding from DEFRA’s Clean Air Fund and was awarded £1,807,303 to introduce the clean air zone. This fund, as well as finance from the government’s Clean Air Zone Implementation Fund, covered the key transport measures that were taken in the plan.

Lessons from Southampton

Engaging with taxi drivers

It was essential to engage with taxi drivers who had concerns about the financial impacts of the clean air zone. As a result, they loudly opposed charging schemes as well as non-charging schemes that do not offer the right support. A key learning point was the need to carry out extra engagement and encouragement with taxi drivers. The council noticed that as this sector is very well networked, once significant engagement had allowed for a small number of drivers to switch to low emission vehicles, these drivers shared their experiences with their peers. This allowed support to quickly build among the sector’s workers.

Coordination with national government

Working with DEFRA was necessary and sometimes challenging including:

  • several court iterations in order to gain legal compliance and approval of the Local NO2 Plan
  • developing the business case report for bringing air quality to legal levels
  • putting the initial measures of the Local NO2 Plan in place

For example, introducing measures to ensure buses and private hire vehicles moved to lower-emitting alternatives needed multiple iterations and amendments from the government, taking almost a year to be approved. A key lesson learned was to carry out extra in-depth consultations with stakeholders in order to be better aware of issues that will arise months or years in the future.

However, now Southampton’s Local NO2 plan has government approval a model now exists for other local authorities to go through a similar process. This means that another council replicating this work will be able to save significant amounts of time.

Responding to Residents

When designing plans for a CAZ, it is essential to carry out public consultations on plans to ensure that policies that are implemented will carry wider public support. In 2018, Southampton City Council carried out an extensive public consultation process, gaining 9,309 responses. 75% of respondents viewed air quality in Southampton as a fair or very big problem, providing the council with significant support to develop air quality policies.

A further advantage of this public consultation was that it emphasised the need for further solutions to be developed, such as promoting public transport and supporting active travel modes like walking and cycling.

Friends of the Earth's view

Southampton City Council’s approach to cutting pollution without charging drivers is an interesting one. As with any traffic pollution measures introduced in the last couple of years the impact cannot be fully assessed yet due to changing travel patterns during the pandemic. The council may need to reconsider charging if pollution cuts are not delivered.

What is encouraging is the level of public backing the council had – not only for tackling pollution from cars but for linking health and environment in other ways – which has prompted the council to go ahead with wider measures to improve walking and cycling, and boost nature in the city.

Councils should consider multiple ways to cut car use including reallocating road space (Action 23 of the Climate Action Plan) and ensuring new development is not car-dependent (Action 28).

Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that a council is doing. 

This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth.

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